Large school districts face minimal competition for students

Majority of the 125 largest school districts in the United States face little competition for their students, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s December report, The Education Competition Index: Quantifying competitive pressure in America’s 125 largest school districts.

Public school systems compete with other public school districts, charter schools, private schools homeschooling and other alternative programs for attendees, and that competition benefits student achievement, the report found.

“We at Fordham view this as a healthy development, both because we believe in the fundamental right of parents to choose schools that work best for their children, and because of the large and ever-growing research literature demonstrating that competition improves achievement in traditional public schools,” the report states. “That ‘competitive effects’ are largely positive should be seen as good news for everyone, as all of us should root for every sector of American education to improve.”

The report notes that “districts that don’t have to compete for traditionally disadvantaged students can afford to take them for granted, which increases the odds that they will be poorly served.”

At a national level, in the decade between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of first-through-eighth grade students who were not enrolled in a district-run school increased from 15 percent to 18 percent. Researchers found that this “was driven by the growth of charter schools, which more than doubled their market share from 3 percent to 6.5 percent.” In spring 2020, nearly half of students in that age range who didn’t attend a district school were enrolled in private schools and roughly one in five were homeschooled.

In 2020, white students (19 percent) were the most likely to enroll in non-district schools followed by their Black (18 percent), Asian (17 percent) and Hispanic peers (14 percent).

Of the 125 local educational agencies considered, 10 were located in California: Corona-Norco, Fresno, Long Beach, San Bernardino City, Santa Ana, Sacramento City, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland unified school districts.


One of the report’s key findings is that most of America’s largest districts only face modest competition for students — meaning that the majority of students do enroll in district-run schools.

“In most places, the local education market looks more like those of Clayton County School District in Georgia and Corona-Norco Unified School District in California, which our estimates suggest are the country’s ‘least competitive large districts’ and where approximately 95 percent of students enrolled in a district-run school in 2020,” the report states. “In the median large district, roughly four out of five students in grades 1-8 still enroll in a district-run school.”

Of large California districts, Oakland (41 percent non-district enrollment), San Francisco (39 percent non-district enrollment) and Los Angeles (36 percent non-district enrollment) face the most competition for students.

“Notably, there is a moderate correlation between urbanicity and the percentage of students not enrolled in a district-run school, with highly urban districts facing roughly twice as much competition on average as nonurban districts,” according to the report.

Another major finding is that, because of greater access to private schools than their non-white peers, districts have more competition for white students. White students were also less likely to be enrolled in a district-run school than their non-white counterparts in 112 of the 125 largest districts.

“The large school district with the biggest white/non-white ’competitiveness gap’ is Santa Ana Unified, where roughly 82 percent of white students were not enrolled in a district-run school in 2020 compared to just 17 percent of non-white students (a difference of 65 percentage points),” researchers found.

The California districts with the most competition for students in different racial/ethnic groups were Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles USDs

Additionally, the report found that in the last decade, most large districts had increasing competition.

“Of the country’s 125 largest school districts, 105 faced increasing competition for students between 2010 and 2020; however, in most cases, this increase was modest,” the report states. “In the typical large district, the share of students not enrolled in district-run schools increased by fewer than ten percentage points, and only one district saw an increase of more than twenty percentage points.”

Non-district enrollment increased more rapidly among non-white students than white students.

A takeaway the report highlights is that “the death of traditional public schools has been greatly exaggerated.”